By Pat Foster-Turley
February 17, 2023
It didn’t take long on this trip to Paris for me to start noticing dogs. And over the days I learned more about them than ever, starting with a fascinating visit to a mostly un-touristed Paris museum, the Musee de la Chasse de la Nature (https://www.chassenature.org/). A 2011 Smithsonian article called it “one of the most rewarding and inventive in Paris.” But all I can say, this was the most amazing museum I visited, the Louvre and Musee de Orsay notwithstanding. And even my art-loving sister-in-law who had been to Paris several times before said that this was the most unusual and interesting museum she had yet visited there. It takes me, a nature lover, to unearth such places in Paris, go figure.
This museum of hunting and nature uses displays in various rooms of an old mansion to tell a story of European man’s relationship with nature, each room themed to convey concepts through collections of classic and contemporary artwork, taxidermied specimens, hunting accoutrements, and various related objects, some real and some curiosities. For instance, the whimsical room showing what Darwin’s study may have looked like included a stuffed Darwin’s finch, and a display of chimpanzees and man including scenes from Planet of the Apes, not in Darwin’s time, of course, but an illustration showing his view of evolution. For those in the know about Darwin, there were many other visual puns like this to embrace.
There was a similar display of naturalist Aldo Leopold’s cabin, and a dark room with a ceiling made of owl feathers, a large room of animal trophies, displays of antique bird-of-prey hoods used in hunting and bird calling devices, and so many other interesting (to me) displays. The saddest art piece for me was a scene of blurred greens, depicting man’s view of a forest from a speeding train, an analogy of man’s connection with nature today.
It was in this museum that I learned of the progression of European’s relationship with dogs, first through the hunting of predators like wolves, then on to the story of dogs as aids for human hunters that included 17th-century large paintings of hunting dogs and on to the reverence for dogs today. When I visited the museum in January, the temporary display, large ceramic pieces by Carolein Smit, centered primarily on dogs.
Thus primed from this museum visit, I started closely watching Parisians with their dogs. We love our dogs here in the United States, but maybe Parisians love them more. At least they tolerate their presence more than we do. I spent evenings having dinner with my family in upscale French restaurants, sometimes sitting near a dog on someone’s lap. They were well-behaved dogs, for sure, but really, a dog with its face near the expensively presented food on someone’s plate, or near mine for that matter? One dog I photographed in a restaurant might have even been a French bulldog (a “Frenchie”), how fitting, although I think it is a Boston terrier, a very similar breed. But whatever, there it was at the table, showing impeccable manners on its owner’s lap.
For these pampered pooches, and their cat friends, no regular pet food is good enough. I wandered in awe through a store selling only dog and cat food, with different formulations for different breeds at different times of their lives. The store had one clerk behind a desk, waiting to help a customer choose the most perfect blend, for a price, of course. Many dogs being walked on the street were dressed in coats that probably cost more than my own.
And even those with much less money had cherished dogs on the streets of Paris. It was not unusual to see a homeless person all bundled up in blankets on the sidewalk, with a dog wrapped up warmly beside him. Some think that maybe the homeless have dogs to get more donations. Not me – I can well understand the comfort that a dog can bring to anyone’s life, no matter their circumstances.
Most people I met were happy to let me interact with their dogs when I asked, and the dogs were well-adapted to the sounds and people of the busy city. But there was one dog I sure didn’t ask to pet. A Belgian malinois dog sporting a heavy-duty muzzle was patrolling around the Louvre with his handler, all business. It was good to actually see a working dog working.
Paris has many sights to see, but some of the most interesting ones are in obscure museums that you can seek out or on the streets. There is indeed something for everyone in Paris, even me.
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]